Race in America books

I wrote this post last week to share with audiences on various social media outlets in honor of the #blacklivesmatter movement. I have to admit to being nervous about sharing it in some Charlotte Mason communities. My experience with most CM-curricula is that they lean heavily toward white, European-American voices (which is, of course, why I started this website). I wasn’t sure if I would get push back, as though a CM-education has to be focused on the so-called “Western Tradition.” I’m happy to report that the post was very positively received everywhere! People were clearly looking for living books about race and were excited to receive a starter list. I’m posting here too so that it can be shared more widely …

Looking for books about race in America to read with your children? Below are some books that we have (or are going to) read as part of school that I quickly pulled off the shelf to share. Most are wonderful reads for adults as well!

Also, this is a good moment to take a hard look at the books you read with your children and question whose voices are represented … if you’re using a curriculum and it’s all white authors/voices, consider changing to a different program. And/or, reach out to the developer of the curriculum.

As Charlotte Mason-inspired home educators, I think it’s really important to keep our choices grounded in our present reality and be careful about how much we rely on older, sometimes out-dated (and even racist) books. Living books are still written, and there are so many excellent options available to us today. These are just a limited sample based on what I happen to have in my house right now (we’re big library users normally so I don’t own everything we read) …

Birchbark House series by Louise Erdrich – historical fiction; Ojibwe family in mid-19th century

Addy books by Connie Porter – An American Girl book about family who escapes slavery during the Civil War and restarts life in Philadelphia

Building a New Land: African Americans in Colonial America by James Haskins and Kathleen Bensen – non-fiction

Osceola: Memories of a Sharecropper’s Daughter by Osceola Mays (collected by Alan Govenar) – true memoir

Heart and Soul: The Story of American and African Americans by Kadir Nelson – non-fiction with glorious paintings

The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales told by Virginia Hamilton

Turtle Island: the Story of North America’s First People by Eldon Yellowhorn & Kathy Lowing

Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom by Virginia Hamilton – history of slavery in the voices of those who lived it

Poetry for Young People: Maya Angelou

Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan – historical fiction; Mexican immigrants during the Depression

Dragonwings by Laurence Yep – historical fiction; Chinese immigrants in early 1900s

Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor – historical fiction; African-American family in south in early 20th century

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai – historical fiction told in verse about family that immigrates from Vietnam to Alabama

Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston & James D. Houston – memoir of Japanese interment

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson – memoir/family history told in verse; African-American family in 60s and 70s

Hidden Figures: Young Readers’ Edition by Margot Lee Shetterly – non-fiction

The Distance Between Us: Young Readers Edition by Reyna Grande – memoir about immigration from Mexico; coming-of-age (probably the most mature content of any of these books)


The secret to writing …

A selection of texts to examine

We’re in our final week of school over here. The kids are mostly done with their work — math finished up and such. So today I decided to introduce a simple, but hopefully powerful, lesson about writing. I told them that I was going to teach them the “secret” of writing … of writing anything.

I spread out some different samples of writing:

  • Children’s novel
  • Graduate-level academic paper
  • Poem
  • Instagram post
  • Letter to the editor
  • Children’s magazine article
  • Newspaper article (from the New York Times)
  • Non-fiction children’s book
  • Rental lease agreement
  • Graphic novel/comicbook for kids

Then I asked them to describe a little bit about each — I introduced some new words, like “genre” and “form” to help guide our discussion. I wanted to help them understand that a “magazine article” is A Thing with expectations of form and content attached to it.

We talked about the different “purposes” and intended “audiences” that guided the writers to choose their particular forms. For example, what might the writer of the letter to the editor be trying to do? Who was he wanting to address? (In this case, it’s a letter in favor of a local political candidate.) How is this different from the purpose and audience of the lease agreement?

We compared the different lengths of the pieces in the different forms and genres, noting which were very short (letter to the editor, poem, Instagram post) and which were very long (novel, non-fiction book). We looked at how images were used and when they were integral components of the text (graphic novel and Instagram) and when they were not (rental lease agreement).

We talked about how the same writer might choose different words for the article for a children’s magazine versus an article for the New York Times and why. We talked about what we might expect to find in each kind of text. Would we expect to find made-up dialogue in the magazine article? Why not? Would we expect it in the novel? Why?

I introduced them to some of the oddities around academic writing and explained that this style of writing is used primarily in school settings and between professors/academics, but that it informs many other kinds of writing too. We will spend a lot of time learning how to “do” academic writing, and it is important for academic success and for developing analytical thinking skills. But realistically it is not a form they are likely to use regularly once they graduate, so I wanted to put it in context now of being one form among many.

We talked about what other kinds of texts exist in the word that weren’t included in the samples. Dottie brought up written instructions, and we talked about what kind of choices we might want to make when writing instructions. We talked about how our goals with writing instructions and a lease agreement might be really different than, say, a poem — especially in terms of how much room there is for multiple interpretations. We also talked about daily forms of writing like letters and emails and phone texts.

Next, I asked the kids to consider what forms and genres they might choose for different purposes. I said what would you choose to write if you want to make plans with friends? (Text or email) What about if you want to oppose a landfill expansion in your community? (Letter to the editor) What if you have a really wonderful epic story idea you want to share? (Novel)

Finally, I asked: so, how would you learn how to write any of these? And, we talked about the importance of reading good examples of the different forms and genres and analyzing how those writers are making them work.

Bingo. The secret of writing.

Obviously we’ll keep using these concepts daily over the many years the kids will spend working on their writing, but I really do think this way of looking at writing — as something we can learn through modeling — is so empowering.

My current students are 7 and 10. This is essentially what I taught my college freshman when I taught English 101 during graduate school. It was a new idea to many of them, and it was clear that many were not well versed in different texts. They didn’t feel comfortable with reading and navigating different kinds of texts yet, let alone writing them.

I actually wrote a paper on this topic as part of my teacher training — my question was, “how can we teach our students how to write when they don’t know how to read?” Obviously they could read, but there’s a big difference between casual reading and purposeful reading. Good writing has to be purposeful, so the route to purposeful writing is purposeful reading.

Now that I’ve given my current students some language and concepts to help guide their purposeful reading, we’ll incorporate this into everything going forward — reading and writing both.

Ultimately, I want to empower my children/students to feel capable of writing anything for any purpose. Obviously, they’ll need to study the forms and models in order to do so. This is one of the main goals of law school, for example, to teach a kind of reading and writing that no one learns outside of that context.

But, I want them to know today, that they can learn to engage in the written discourse of our world. They can learn to communicate effectively with words, regardless of their purpose.

Why I love RightStart math

Math — how to teach this important subject is the conundrum of many a homeschooling parent! Even people who feel competent with their own math skills feel (justifiably) daunted by taking this massive set of skills and breaking it down for the beginning learner. Math is built of complex sequential skills, and most parents want to prepare their students for all the math yet to come. But how does one start preparing a kindergartner today for the high school level geometry or algebra they’ll encounter a decade later?

The answer is, of course, to purchase (and consistently use!) a curriculum with an expertly planned scope and age-appropriate sequence of topics. Although I have loved planning our readings myself, this is an area where I think the vast majority of homeschooling families should outsource and select a curriculum. I have certainly been happy to do so! There are just so many moving parts — including the students themselves, who will be developmentally different each year.

Thankfully we live in an era with a lot of quality resources available for teaching math at home. When I go on homeschooling forums, it’s common to see questions from people asking about favorite math options and there are so many different answers provided! I usually chime in too with a few words about our math curriculum, RightStart, which I love so much. We’ve been it for four years, and I feel 100% confident that my students are learning what they need to learn well. My son is currently working through Level E; my daughter is working through Level C.

Here’s why I chose RightStart and why I love it:

RightStart is completely scripted. That means that for me, a non-professional home teacher, I don’t have to do extra preparation before lessons. I can pull together the materials (conveniently listed on the lesson) and sit down with my student and work through the lesson. I usually do a quick glance over to make sure I understand where we’re heading beforehand, but now that I am familiar with how the program works, that read-through takes me only a minute or two. Sometimes if we’re working on a new concept, I’ll take more time, but often I can fit that into time when my student is doing other work with me at the table. I have found the prep to be very minimal, which makes it much easier for me to be consistent in doing math every school day.

Everything needed for Lesson 92 in Level C. Lesson scripts usually span two facing pages in the book and begin with a warm-up, followed by the main lesson (usually some dialogue and one or two activities) and end with a brief wrap-up that reinforces concepts learned and sometimes asks the student to stretch those ideas even further.

RightStart is interaction-based. Lessons are a dialogue between the teacher and student. Especially in the early levels, much of the math is done orally. There are many benefits to this — it helps keep students focused because the teacher is there, holding the space for them. It also separates math skills from handwriting, writing and reading — which are skills in of themselves and can get in the way of working on math. In the earliest levels, as the teacher I’d even push this element further and write answers on the few worksheets for my students as they narrated them. This was especially huge for my son.

The interaction nature of RightStart also does require a time commitment on the part of the teacher, and this is the biggest challenge for many families who have tried it and moved on — the parent felt that he or she just didn’t have the time to sit and work through lessons with their child. I’ve timed how long our lessons take, and depending on the level and whether we have a game to play, each lesson takes about 10 – 40 minutes to complete. With two children, that means I usually spend 45-60 minutes every school day sitting with my children doing math.

I consider this time well spent. By working on their math with them, I keep them focused. I also relearn myself what they are learning, making me a much more effective tutor-teacher. Also review is built-in to lessons, meaning that the time we spend on their lessons is the only time we actively “work on math” (aside from fun real life and games). We can work through a level in one year if we do four lessons a week (which is the number of mornings we “do school” in our house). When my son was very young, we had to break up the lessons over two days, but we caught up later in the summer.

RightStart is multi-sensory and fun. RightStart lessons use a combination of interactions, worksheets, manipulatives, and games to teach. New families need to initially invest in a large set of manipulatives, but each family only needs one set for all children and all levels. The primary manipulative is a special abacus that helps students learn to “subitize” — that is, to recognize numbers through patterns (rather than counting). This makes doing computation much less onerous and helps them eventually internalize pattern-recognition on more complex levels. This skill makes learning “math facts” possible without doing any rote memorization. Facts are learned through a combination of pattern exploration, games, and practice. I was honestly blown away by how quickly my children learned math facts, because I remember doing worksheet after worksheet as a child and still taking a long time to learn all of them. And, parents, the games are actually fun. Yes, even for me.

One bin holds almost all the materials we use! Not pictured here is the balance, which I keep on a shelf.

RightStart spirals through topics every year. Mathematical concepts are introduced early and often. Even in the first year, students are introduced to all the operations, geometry, algebraic thinking, time, money, measurement, and fractions. Each year, the students go into these topics deeper. By the time my son reached Level E, more advanced adding of fractions with different denominators was a breeze for him! Everything is introduced in concrete ways through the use of the various manipulatives so that children are led to learn the basic “algorithms” of math through their own experience rather than simply being taught.

RightStart is effective. All of these thoughtful, well-planned details makes for a program that simply works really, really well to help kids learn to think mathematically. The scope and sequence is developmentally-appropriate and comprehensive. I have every confidence that my children are being well prepared for all the math to come.

Sometimes my kids wear noise-blocking headphones when working on worksheets. I still sit with them even through these parts, to be available for questions and help them focus. Worksheets are used very judiciously in RightStart, when it actually makes sense to do work on paper. Many lessons are completely interaction and game-based.

There are many different kinds of programs out there available to homeschoolers. Some of them can seem “too good to be true” — promising to teach kids math without so much parental effort or financial investment or through silly stories. Early on, I messed around with some of these lower-investment programs, and I didn’t see results. Math is an area where I think making a financial and time investment is absolutely worth it. When I finally purchased RightStart and began using it with my oldest, I was blown away by the depth of what was offered, in a very easy-to-use format.

Last year, I seriously considered sending our children to a local Montessori school. After four years of teaching at home, I was feeling temporarily burnt out on homeschooling. My children visited the school to see if it would be a good fit. After a few experimental lessons, the teacher had no concerns about my children’s math skills — they were completely up to grade level and then some. And, I don’t think this is because math “comes naturally” to them! They have both worked, through the structure of RightStart, to learn what they know — I’ve witnessed their growth and breakthroughs in the context of our lessons and games. I was relieved to hear that RightStart had prepared them well for a potential classroom, but at the same time, I felt sad to give up RightStart! So, for many reasons, we happily decided to continue homeschooling — with RightStart as a foundational part of what we do every day.

I can’t recommend this program enough!

The 1619 project

Parents and educators! The New York Times just published the most amazing piece of journalism. It’s called “The 1619 Project,” named for the year that the first enslaved Africans were brought to the British Colonies in August of 1619 (400 years ago). From the front of the magazine:

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon [pictured on cover], near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. American was not yet America, but this was the moment it began. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the 250 years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.

The articles are all written by African American writers, and they go deep into the many ways that slavery has shaped much of American politics and dynamics even to today. It’s very powerful stuff and intense to read. I will be saving my copy for my children to read when they are much older, but I am grateful to have read it myself now.

You can find a free PDF of the magazine here or order a print copy here (they have been sold out, but hopefully they will print more soon!).